Whoever Gets Social Search Right Will Beat Google -- Just Like Google Beat Alta Vista

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For the last decade, Google has dominated how we get information on our computers, but the time is ripe for a competitor to unseat it.So says Mark Drummond, the CEO of real-time search startup Wowd, who spoke on a panel on the future of search at today’s Farsight 2011 event.

Drummond pointed out that Google actually started out by incorporating more social data than any other search site.

Back in the 1990s, search sites like Alta Vista analysed pages based only on their content. Google’s brilliant insight was to realise that the number of links to a page actually reflected its relevance. Google was the first organisation to analyse these links at scale, and the result was total search dominance.

But now, this link-as-vote notion has been “totally gamed,” says Drummond. To recover relevance, some search provider will have to take the growing store of information about users’ social connections and mathematically analyse it at huge scale.

This is harder than it sounds. Facebook’s social graph lets users “Like” individual Web pages, and Twitter contains lots of real-time information about a user’s connections and what they find interesting, but a social search algorithm has to take a lot of information into account.

For instance, imagine that you’re searching for information about a new barbecue. To deliver the most relevant results, a search engine would have to track which of your social connections has expressed an opinion about barbecues, how well you know that person, how well that person knows you, how much you believe that they’re an expert on the subject, and how all of these factors may have changed over time. Then, it has to take this information and combine it with all the other information that it uses to rank and analyse Web pages.

Complicating matters further, not all opinions are easily encapsulated on Web pages. To be really good, a social search site should also take into account a huge range of user behaviour — text messages, IMs, opinions in online forums like Yelp, even online purchases — and somehow stitch all of those pieces of information together into a coherent view.

It must be mentioned that the event was sponsored by Microsoft search engine Bing, which has a business relationship with Facebook to incorporate “Likes” and other information from Facebook in search results.

But Drummond never mentioned Microsoft or Bing — rather, he was simply pointing out the magnitude of the challenge for Microsoft or any other company that wants to unseat Google.

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